“The more I think about my gender expression, the more I think about how I move through the world and how people see me… I know that I’m a woman. I’m transfeminine or a trans woman. What I’m doing now isn’t enough for me to feel okay. I want to do more — socially and medically transition.”
Those words, spoken by Veronica, are as good a place as any to start our story. In theory, that was our first conversation about her transition, she/her pronouns, name changes, hormone treatments, and surgeries. After she told me, we talked for a few hours. I reassured her that her words and decisions hadn’t changed my feelings for her; she explained more about what she wanted to do next. Eyes misted up; words caught in throats; social transition plans were made; and laughter, smiles and hugs were sprinkled through the evening. In theory, that’s how our story begins.
Maybe “in theory” is the wrong phrase. I think “in narrative convention” would be more accurate.
In the majority of the narratives that we’re sold, a partner, friend or family member’s transition generally begins with a Big Announcement. It could be planned (“I called you here…”) or blurted out (preferably at the “worst” moment). Ideally, it’s shock to all or some of those present. Breaths are held, gasps are heard, questions rush out the moment there’s a pause. Depending on the writer and/or director, someone will walk out — or at the very least, stand up and moodily stare out the window.
Certainly for some people, that is the reality. The narrative convention does not come from nothing. Some people do announce their LGBTQIA+ness to a shocked audience of one or more people who had no idea.
There is also the version of the narrative where the whole audience already knew and the Big Announcement was only that size in the mind of the speaker. For some people, the reality is like that.
And then there are all the realities in between.
Our reality was in between. In storytelling, it would be “her partner already knew and reacted fairly and with love,” because that’s the easy way to package it.
Narratives simplify reality to create entertainment and/or provoke thought. Reality is messy and layered. I did and didn’t anticipate that “first” conversation. When it came, it was the culmination of weeks of conversation about related topics. I wasn’t shocked but I didn’t sagely nod either. She wasn’t scared about my reaction, but she had been.
When Veronica and I were getting to know each other, she talked about how she’d incorporated makeup and feminine clothing into her look in high school and at university. She showed me videos of drag performances from her time in San Francisco. There were friends who referred to her by her drag character’s name and used she/her pronouns. We discussed whether she’d ever considered transitioning. Before we started dating, I knew that she embraced femininity and masculinity in different ways.
During our relationship, she had a period of gender fluidity. She tried out they/them pronouns and, as she had in her teens and twenties, she began incorporating feminine clothing and makeup into her look. That evolved into a deeper interrogation of her gender identity and finally “came to a head” in our “first” conversation. But it wasn’t a Big Announcement. It was one of many important conversations and its main significance is that it was the first one with the words “I’m a woman.”
I wasn’t surprised because it made sense given everything I knew about her. I was surprised we’d talked about it before and her experiences don’t quite fit “the trans narrative” that we’re taught. I wasn’t shocked because it was a logical assembly of all the supplied pieces. I didn’t sagely nod because I’m not that arrogant… and because I wasn’t actually “waiting for her to catch up to what I already knew.” I wasn’t upset because I could still see the love of my life sitting opposite me. I was upset because I knew this was going to be really tough on her and we don’t want our loved ones to have a tough time.
She also had conflicting emotions. She’s since told me that for her, the biggest fear was that I’d reject her: because I identified for so long as a gay man and she is a woman; because the transition would be too emotionally intense for me*; or for some unforeseeable reason. At the same time, she told me that she trusted that I wouldn’t reject her because of everything we’d been through already. She expected to feel relief but she actually felt tense.
That was our “first” conversation. A mixture of feelings around a talk that clarified and crystallized things we’d both had in our minds for some time and added some new information. Hard to portray in a popular narrative but very real. But it’s a good place to begin.
*She had good reason for this fear. She wasn’t underestimating me. But I’ll write about that another time.